Prescott on bulimia

Why the former deputy prime minister didn't reveal his condition in office

For most of the two hours we spent in John Prescott's office in Westminster, he talked energetically about politics: Blair, Brown, Bush, Iraq, climate change, the Murdochs. He was on fierce, bombastic form. But, towards the end, we briefly discussed a more personal side of his life. Last year, when Prescott admitted in his autobiography that he had suffered from bulimia, the press and public seemed astonished. Bulimia is usually associated with bony models or neurotic teenagers -- not 70-year-old Labour politicians.

"Most people have got me down as a bloated pig," he said when we spoke, conscious of how his image seemed at odds with the perception of bulimia as the disease of the thin. But his appearance masked a serious disorder that ultimately needed medical treatment. He reflects now that his revelation was treated relatively respectfully by the press -- they wrote about it as "a serious subject", which, given his usual treatment by journalists, was a change. But he noted that the reaction would have been very different if he'd spoken about his condition while still deputy PM:

It was happening in government. If I'd said it in government, the press would immediately have gone round saying, "Can he be in that job then? He's over-stressed, he can't do it."

It's an unwitting reference to the rumour mill that surrounded Gordon Brown earlier in the year as right-wing bloggers fuelled speculation that the Prime Minister was taking antidepressants -- a story that took off when Andrew Marr asked him the question on his TV show. The media, as Prescott infers, are quick to pronounce on someone being unfit for office.

As it was, he managed to keep his condition a secret, escaping interrogation and calls for his head (on this score, at least). But his awareness of his body and how he is perceived is still with him: he describes himself as we speak as "tubby and fatty", talks about how TV cameras can change the way you look, and sympathises with other sufferers. Many people who suffer from eating disorders struggle to admit it to themselves, let alone to a nation. Prescott's openness is surprising, but also genuinely impressive.

 

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Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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Our treatment of today's refugees harks back to Europe's darkest hour

We mustn't forget the lessons of the Second World War in the face of today's refugee crisis, says Molly Scott Cato.

In the 1930s, thousands of persecuted people fled Europe. Our own press ignominiously reported these as "Stateless Jews pouring into this country" and various records exist from that time of public officials reassuring readers that no such thing would be allowed under their watch.

With the benefit of historical hindsight we now know what fate awaited many of those Jews who were turned away from sanctuary. Quite rightly, we now express horror about the Holocaust, an iconic example of the most shocking event of human history, and pledge ourselves to stop anything like it happening again. 

Yet as Europe faces its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War we are witnessing a deafening cacophony of xenophobic voices in response to people fleeing their own present-day horror. We must therefore reflect on whether there is an uncomfortable parallel in the language being used to describe those seeking asylum today and the language used to describe Jews seeking refuge in the 1930s.

Our response to the current refugee crisis suggests we feel fearful and threatened by the mass movement of desperate people; fearful not just of sharing what we have but also of the sense of disorganisation and chaos. Does the fact that these refugees are from Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, and so not part of our continent, provide an excuse to allow them to be bombed at home or drowned during their desperate journey to safety?

We are not helped by the poorly informed public debate which—perhaps intentionally—conflates three quite different movements of people: free movement within the EU, irregular or unauthorised migration and the plight of the Middle Eastern refugees. While our misguided foreign policy and unwillingness to tackle change may give us a moral responsibility for those fleeing famine and conflict, our responsibility towards refugees from war zones is clear under international law.

Due to our commitments to the UN Refugee Convention, the vast majority of Syrian refugees who reach our territory are given asylum but the UK has taken fewer Syrian refugees than many other European countries. While Germany admitted around 41,000 asylum-seekers in 2014 alone, the UK has taken in fewer than 7000.

The problem is that any sense of compassion we feel conflicts with our perception of the economic constraints we face. In spite of being the fifth largest economy in the world we feel poor and austerity makes us feel insecure. However, when actually confronted with people in crisis our humanity can come to the fore. A friend who spent her holiday in Greece told me that she saw local people who are themselves facing real poverty sharing what they had with the thousands of refugees arriving from Turkey.

A straightforward response to the growing sense of global crisis would be to restore the authority of the UN in managing global conflict, a role fatally undermined by Tony Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq. Our role should be to support UN efforts in bringing about strong governments in the region, not taking the misguided ‘coalition of the willing’ route and running foreign policy based on self-interest and driven by the demands of the oil and arms industries.

We also need EU policy-makers to show leadership in terms of solidarity: to co-operate over the acceptance of refugees and finding them safe routes into asylum, something the European Greens have consistently argued for. The EU Commission and Parliament are in clear agreement about the need for fixed quotas for member states, a plan that is being jeopardised by national government’s responding to right-wing rather than compassionate forces in their own countries.

Refugees from war-torn countries of the Middle East need asylum on a temporary basis, until the countries they call home can re-establish security and guarantee freedom from oppression.

The responsibility of protecting refugees is not being shared fairly and I would appeal to the British people to recall our proud history of offering asylum. Without the benefit of mass media, the excuse of ignorance that can help to explain our failure to act in the 1930s is not available today. We must not repeat the mistakes of that time in the context of today’s crisis, mistakes which led to the deaths of so many Jews in the Nazi death camps. 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.